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Draft of a Letter
by James Longenbach
University of Chicago Press, $16.00 (paper)
“I’m on the lookout for bone,” James Longenbach wrote in his first book of poems, Threshold, and since its publication in 1998 the poet has come closer to bone through an increasing austerity of line and language. If his remarkable second book, Fleet River, shed the dense textures of its predecessor, Draft of a Letter, Longenbach’s third and most recent collection, relentlessly whittles away at narrative to expose the purest of lyrics: spiritual inquiry. “If you say the word death / In heaven, / Nobody understands.” Rather than serving as an antidote to ornament, the spareness that rules Draft of a Letter illuminates what may be most chilling and true—in this case, a word’s utter loss of meaning in the afterlife—and Longenbach repeatedly challenges the silence that surrounds his finely cut lines with severe revelation. He accomplishes this balance of verbal paucity and connotative richness largely through a lineation that tempers blunt observation by drawing out time and inviting hesitation. Sentences thus broken and deployed acquire breathtaking tension: “What is within you // Will save you. // What is not within you— // Hair on the pillow. / Voices in the leaves.” While the struggle to determine what is and what is not “within” reflects questions about faith and mortality, the metaphor of drafting—of writing and revision, of engaging the power (and powerlessness) of the word—highlights the book’s most difficult question: to whom is this letter addressed? “Friends, whoever reads this, / Know that I am sitting on a bench / Beside the lower paddock, / Rowing against the current.” Here the speaker names and then un-names his interlocutor, verbalizing the gentle subversion his actions, “rowing against the current.” Whether “you” is the self or God, friend or stranger, Draft of a Letter deftly suggests that one must risk one’s position as speaker (“by listening // I was changed forever, / forever the same”) to reconcile life and death: “Don’t return me // To earth, a burden. / Make me smoke. / Recite an alphabet / of lamentations.”
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